Top plumbing apprentice wants to see more women in the industry

By Libby Kirkby-McLeod of rnz.co.nz and is republished with permission

New Zealand’s first woman to win the top prize for an apprentice plumber wants to see more young women encouraged to join the profession.

Maria Contreras Huerta is an apprentice plumber at Morrinsville Plumbing and Gas Services. Photo: RNZ/Libby Kirkby-McLeod

Maria Contreras Huerta is in her last year as an apprentice plumber at Morrinsville Plumbing and Gas Services. Along with being this year’s winner of the 2024 Plumbing Awards overall apprentice prize, she has been nominated for a National Association of Women in Construction excellence award.

There were no other girls in her Wintec training classes and she is the first female apprentice at her company.

In total, women only make up about 5 percent of the plumbing industry.

“Obviously I did know there’s not much females in plumbing, but I honestly didn’t really care about that aspect, I just really wanted to do plumbing,” Contreras Huerta said.

Her workplace had been very supportive, and she was optimistic that the number of women in the trade would grow, especially if the industry could make it more obvious that it welcomed them.

“Even like trade events around schools, instead of just having a guy there, or a boss there, have two different apprentices,” she suggested.

For some young women, it may be intimidating to approach tradesmen, she said. However, she met her boss Dave Strong for the first time at her school’s career day fair.

Strong hired Contreras Huerta as an apprentice and said she had everything he expected of his apprentices – she was proactive, enthusiastic, and had a good attitude.

He has been a plumber for 42 years and often has apprentices. At present his company has five, including Maria.

“It’s the only way the industry will survive is by training new people in. I’m going to retire one day so someone’s got to take my place and you can only do it by training people,” he said.

According to the Plumbers, Gasfitters and Drainlayers Board, the average age of certifying plumbers, gasfitters and drainlayers is 49.

Strong had seen many changes in the industry, and different approaches to attracting people into the workforce, including the establishment of apprentice training organisation MasterLink.

“When they first started 25 years ago you couldn’t get apprentices. You had industry wanting to train, but schools weren’t keen on having kids becoming tradespeople.”

Morrinsville Plumbing and Gas Services managing director Dave Strong.

Morrinsville Plumbing and Gas Services managing director Dave Strong. Photo: RNZ/Libby Kirkby-McLeod

MasterLink is owned by Master Plumbers and specialises in plumbing, gasfitting and drainlaying apprenticeships. It sends local apprentices to Wintec for block course training.

Plumbing teacher Daniel Kotze said people needed to remember that plumbing was a lifeline service.

“I think it’s a necessary job in our community. To be able to have drinking water is very important, and also for personal hygiene, that’s what plumbers and drainlayers bring to the table.”

Wintec plumbing team leader Amy Opperman organises a Wāhine in Trades event each year to highlight women succeeding in the industry.

She believed the industry and the public were open to seeing more women in trades.

“Business owners will actually get in touch with us here and say ‘I’d really like to see if there are any females available to join our team’,” she said.

She had been told many customers liked to deal with women tradespeople.

Contreras Huerta said she had found that too – older women living alone especially appreciated her turning up, she said.

“You are going into someone else’s life pretty much, your home is something very private to you.”

She said training as a plumber had affected many areas of her life.

“Before my apprenticeship I wasn’t that confident, but I’ve built confidence and I’m stronger in myself mentally and physically,” she said.

And she said plumbing was not just about unclogging toilets.

“Everyone thinks it’s about poop and human faeces! There is so much variety, and there’s way wider aspects of it, and you can always specialise in something. You don’t have to go into plumbing, you can specialise in gasfitting, or even drainlaying.”

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